Mysteries of the Holy Family

Immanuel Kant’s essay, What Is Enlightenment, explains for the modern world what “enlightenment” means.  To be enlightened, he says, is to become entirely independent in thought.  Children grow up depending on others for everything, of course, and even for their thoughts and opinions, but to be enlightened means that one throws aside childish dependence and thinks entirely for oneself. Something about the claim rings true, especially for our ruggedly individual age.

Yet without saying so explicitly, Kant’s position casts the family as a necessary evil.  We have to grow up in families, but they train us to live below our dignity by thinking like slaves.  To reach human perfection is to shake off the effects of family life.

Yesterday’s feast and today’s solemnity remind us that the family is a path to enlightenment; that childhood as such is a path to humanity and even beyond; that the bonds between parent and child are bonds indeed, but not fetters.

Along these lines, let me toss out three mysteries relating to the Holy Family:

  1. A parent can stand in for the child’s own will.

This is just a natural reality, but isn’t this a remarkable thing?  When my son had a life-threatening medical condition, I had to decide—on his behalf—what would be done to his body, what course would determine all.  Before my children were ever aware of their surroundings, I chose where they would live, and consequently what nation and what state would claim their citizenship, and as a result what laws they would be under.  Extending this natural reality, I even committed my children to God through baptism, and by so doing I brought on them all the obligations of a Christian.  It is an astonishing and wonderful thing that one human person can be so entrusted to another.

  1. The child Jesus had both a divine and a human will.

When I teach about the mystery of the Incarnation, students are typically ready with the formula they learned in their catechisms:  Jesus is one divine person in two natures, one divine and one human.  But they are typically shocked by the obvious implication that Jesus has a divine will and a human will, two roots of love, two ultimate centers of desire.  Of course, even Jesus’ human will is the human will of a divine person:  the life of the Word of God extends into time and space through the Incarnation, such that anyone who has seen the man Jesus has seen the Father.  Consequently, the love of the Word of God is replayed in the love of the man Jesus:  this man loving the Father is God’s own Son loving him through a human nature!  A human nature has been caught up into and, so to speak, included in the inner life of the Trinity.

  1. The previous two mysteries together make a third.

Joseph acted as foster father and Mary as the natural mother of the child Jesus.  When they circumcised him—an event commemorated as part of today’s feast, according to the current Martyrology—they chose God on behalf of the Word of God.  When they committed Jesus to the faith of Israel, they turned toward the Father on behalf of his own Son.  They were caught up into the mystery of the Incarnation, and for the brief period of his infancy they stood in for the theandric will of the God-man.  Now that just makes this parent break out in goose bumps.

God be praised for the family!  God be praised for the mystery of the Incarnation!  God be praised, I say, for the mystery of the Holy Family.

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Non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium

This is just a quick note to let my subscribers know I published this article over at the Catholic World Report:

Sometimes “religious obsequium” is translated “religious assent,” at other times “religious submission,” and at other times “religious respect”. What exactly are we being asked to do?

(Nils @nilshuber/Unsplash.com)
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Feser and Bessette: The authority of government

Feser and Bessette structure their argument for capital punishment carefully.  Their fourth general premise is that some wrongdoers deserve death, but they spell out as a fifth and separate premise the notion that someone has the authority to inflict that death upon the wrongdoer:

Public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict on wrongdoers the punishments they deserve.

As I noted in my original post on the death penalty, the fact that someone deserves death does not of itself imply that any human being has the authority to impose it.  Accordingly, F&B devote an entire subsection of their argument to showing that the government in particular does have that authority.

However, I think there is a small gap in their case.  Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The authority of government”

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Feser and Bessette: Surprising Omission #1

Feser and Bessette take on this moral question:  Is it ever OK to kill a human being, supposing the person is guilty?  And as we have seen, Feser and Bessette’s general approach to morality is that one must observe the teleology built into the natures of things—what a given thing is ordered toward—and then act in accordance with that teleology.  So it comes as a complete surprise that their moral argument never—not once—speaks about what a human being is ordered toward.  What would seem to be the key, namely the telos of the human person, is absent from their book. Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: Surprising Omission #1”

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Feser and Bessette: Disagreement with Aquinas

As Feser and Bessete wind up their argument about punishment as such, they note that punishment has traditionally been considered to have several purposes:  in addition to retribution, it can also serve to deter future crime or rehabilitate the criminal.  “But,” they go on, “as our discussion indicates, for the natural law theorist, retribution is not only a legitimate end of punishment: it is the fundamental end” (page 40).  Further down they make explicit what they mean: “For, all things being equal, we may punish even if we will thereby achieve no end other than retribution; but we may not punish if retribution is not at least one of the ends aimed at.”

However, still further in, F&B allow that “some traditional natural law theorists think” that we can’t “inflict a punishment merely to secure retributive justice,” and they go on to offer some citations from Aquinas (57).  It was only on my second read that I realized F&B are saying that Aquinas disagrees with them about punishment.  Perhaps one reason it was not clear to me at first is that they do not cite Aquinas’s clearest statement on the point:  “Vengeance is lawful and virtuous so far as it tends to the prevention of evil” (ST II-II 108.2). Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: Disagreement with Aquinas”

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Feser and Bessette: The Case for Punishment

To support the first and second premises of their general argument, Feser and Bessette must argue that punishment is a good thing.  Their case can be set out in four steps:

  1. We observe in the world that, for the most part and when things are working properly, people who act in accordance with the in-built teleology of things end up with pleasure and happiness while people who act against the in-built teleology of things end up with pain and misery.
  2. We reason that what happens for the most part and when things are working well reflects the natural teleology built into the world.
  3. We conclude that actions in accord with natural teleology have an ordering to pleasure and happiness while actions against natural teleology have an ordering to pain and misery.
  4. When someone acts badly but ends up without pain or misery, we see this as a violation of step 3 and so we inflict pain on him in order to bring things back into line with the natural teleology whereby bad actions are ordered to pain and misery.

Let me offer the argument in F&B’s own words.  It’s a lengthy text, but the argument seems so odd to me that I want the reader to see it spelled out—unless you’re in a hurry, in which case skip to the critique after these long quotations: Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The Case for Punishment”

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Feser and Bessette: The general philosophical approach

In Feser and Bessette’s philosophical case for the moral legitimacy of the death penalty, the first thing to notice is their general approach to moral reasoning.  They claim to represent traditional natural law theory, which they put forward as the approach taken by St. Thomas Aquinas and advocated by Pope St. John Paul II (page 21), and they devote a few pages to explaining what this approach is.

The approach set out, however, does not appear to me to be what Aquinas and JPII had in mind.  Let me explain with a couple of examples from F&B’s principles: Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The general philosophical approach”

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Feser and Bessette: The Philosophical Argument, overview

No matter what criticism one brings against their book or its argument, one must admit that Feser and Bessette make their argument clear.  On page 52, they offer an overview of their philosophical argument for the moral legitimacy of the death penalty.  Notice that steps 4, 5, and 6 form a syllogism:

  1. Wrongdoers deserve punishment.
  2. The graver the wrongdoing, the severer is the punishment deserved.
  3. Some crimes are so grave that no punishment less than death would be proportionate in its severity.
  4. Therefore, wrongdoers guilty of such crimes deserve death.
  5. Public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict on wrongdoers the punishments they deserve.
  6. Therefore, public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict the death penalty on those guilty of the gravest offenses.

Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The Philosophical Argument, overview”

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Feser and Bessette: The Theological Argument

After my recent post about the death penalty, I bought the new book by Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed.  They offer a veritable encyclopedia on the issue, taking up all manner of objections and citing all manner of sources.  Over the next few posts, I would like to offer my reactions to at least the first part of their work.

To start with, their strongest point: the theological argument of chapter 2 is imposing.  Citing not only sources but even critics of the death penalty, Feser and Bessette bring out the following: Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The Theological Argument”

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Experiencing Sacred Time

The Solemnity of All Saints stands out for me as—well, solemn.  By celebrating the communion of saints as such, the day seems to offer thanksgiving for the fact that we celebrate the saints, for the very existence of the sanctoral cycle.  So every November 1st, I find myself reflecting on the fact of sacred days and times.

Charles Taylor argues that a loss of the sense of sacred time was key in the transition to modernity.  Medieval man experienced times as defined by content and as ordered not only by chronology alone, so that “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997.”  But modern man experiences time as homogeneous and empty, ordered simply by one time’s replacing another in sequence.  Modern man can believe in eternity, says Taylor, but he can’t experience eternity’s penetration into time in a naïve, unreflective way.

Taylor is surely right that this was one strand in the transition to secularity.  But how absolute a doom is modernity?  Can a man today experience sacred time in an immediate way, or will it always be mediated to him through some kind of abstract consideration?  Or will it—even worse—always be constituted by a wistful recollection of a bygone era when Christians really experienced the seasons, like those nostalgic Christmas cards depicting horses and sleighs and Victorian houses?

In this post, I want to describe my own experience of sacred time.  I don’t know whether it would count for Taylor as “immediate” or “naïve,” but there is something immediate and unreflective about it to me.  The experience is complex, because time is complex. Continue reading “Experiencing Sacred Time”

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